Diabetic retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes that can damage your eyesight over time if left untreated.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What is diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetes is a condition that can cause your blood sugar to be consistently high. This, in turn, can damage your blood vessels, including those in your eyes - this is diabetic retinopathy. These blood vessels are very important because they supply your retina, the part of your eye that processes light and is crucial for sight.

If untreated, diabetic retinopathy can eventually lead to blindness. However, it usually develops gradually over time and can be avoided by:

  • Learning to manage your blood sugar levels
  • Having regular eye tests to spot problems early

Diabetic retinopathy or a detached retina affect an estimated 1.5 million in the UK – that’s just over two in 100 people. Sadly 1,600 people every year lose their sight as a result of diabetes.

Causes of diabetic retinopathy

Too much sugar in your blood over time can block the tiny blood vessels that supply your retina. In an attempt to restore blood flow, your eye grows new blood vessels but they don’t develop properly and can leak, causing damage to the retina.

Risks of diabetic retinopathy

You’re more likely to get diabetic retinopathy if:

  • You’ve had diabetes for many years
  • Your blood sugar levels are persistently high
  • You also have high blood pressure or high cholesterol
  • You’re pregnant
  • You’re of Asian or Afro-Caribbean heritage
  • You smoke

How to tell if you have diabetic retinopathy

You probably won’t be able to tell in the early stages, which is why it’s important to go for regular screening. Early detection and treatment can help stop it getting worse.

See your GP or diabetes care team immediately if:

  • You think your sight is getting worse or you've had a sudden loss of vision
  • The quality of your sight seems to vary
  • Seeing spots or strings (floaters) or dark patches in your vision
  • Your vision is blurry
  • Colours don’t look right
  • Your eyes are red or painful

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

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Diagnosis and tests for diabetic retinopathy

Everyone with diabetes who is aged 12 or older should be screened each year for diabetic retinopathy. During retinal screening, you’ll be given eye drops to enlarge your pupils then photographs of your retina will be taken and sent away for analysis and diagnosis.

If you’re diagnosed with retinopathy, it'll be graded according to how far it’s progressed.

Common treatments for diabetic retinopathy

Treatment will depend on the stage and grading of your condition.


Controlling your diabetes can prevent or delay your condition getting worse, especially in the early stages. You should:

  • Aim to keep your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol at target levels
  • Keep to a healthy weight
  • Take your medication as advised
  • Get help to stop smoking if necessary


If your diabetic retinopathy is more advanced you may be offered:

  • Laser treatment to stop the growth of new blood vessels
  • Eye injections to prevent new blood vessels forming
  • A slow-release steroid implant, using an injection, to reduce swelling and inflammation
  • Eye surgery to remove blood or scar tissue from the eye